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Researchers sound alarm on Illinois child care crisis

Illinois parents face dwindling child care options as workers leave the industry seeking better pay and working conditions.

CHICAGO (CN) — "Parents can't afford to pay. Workers can't afford to stay."

So begins a pair of white paper studies recently released by the Illinois Child Care for All Coalition, a child care reform advocacy group led by the Service Employees International Union.

The studies, released in May and October, paint a grim picture of the current state of Illinois' child care sector, finding parents face dwindling options and soaring prices for early child care services in the state while many workers in the industry live in poverty. It's a trend, the studies conclude, that will not change without significant state intervention.

"The overall failure of the system results in a depleted child care capacity, insufficient to serve all families in need," the first of the pair of studies states. "Navigating this situation leaves both parents and workers economically depleted and in a constant state of anxiety."

As the studies' tagline implies, the crisis is twofold: On the supply side of the equation, child care workers, particularly those working in independent or in-home daycares, are chronically underpaid and overworked. According to the studies, licensed family child care providers in Illinois only made an average of $7.04 per hour in 2019, with license-exempt providers making even less. College-educated early child care teachers fared only slightly better, making an average of $13 per hour in 2019.

"The result is that nearly 20% of early educators in Illinois live in poverty," the first paper states.

The paper also says that in recent years many Illinois child care workers have begun leaving the industry in response to the bleak situation, seeking better jobs elsewhere.

"Following the pandemic, over 80% of early childhood teachers responding to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children noted a staffing shortage at work," the studies report.

On the demand side, this mass exodus of child care workers has slashed the availability of child care services, particularly pre-K services, for parents. It's also sent prices soaring, with struggling daycare centers charging more per child to keep themselves afloat. One figure from the second study, citing research by the non-partisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute, concluded that a two-parent, two-child family in Chicago would need to pull in over $92,000 per year to comfortably afford child care services.

"In Illinois, the annual cost of center care for an infant is $13,000, while in Chicago the average annual cost of care is close to $19,000," the paper states. "A family with more than one young child in need of child care could easily spend between $20,000 - $50,000 per year."

Illinois does have one avenue of subsidized childcare assistance: the Child Care Assistance Program, which caps child care costs at 7% of family income for those who qualify. However, the papers conclude that this one program is insufficient to meet the needs of the moment. In order to qualify, applicants need to make at or below 225% of the federal poverty level - $53,000 for a family of four as of 2022. Many child care providers also do not accept CCAP vouchers.

Even those that do often still partially rely on private tuition to fund themselves, explained Pedro Bortoto, an SEIU researcher and one of the studies' authors.

"Licensed home providers can charge tuition from parents that do not qualify for CCAP. Most home-based centers operate having as revenue a mix of public funding and private pay," Bortoto said. "For child care centers, the same logic applies, but it usually depends on the fiscal status of the center... there's a sea of centers that rely on both public and private pay."

The studies lay the blame for the crisis on a lack of state funding for child care providers, as well as a lack of adequate taxes on the wealthy in order to secure that funding. Illinois dedicates about $2 billion annually to supporting child care. The studies – in addition to the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, established by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker in 2019 – say the sector needs more than six times that amount of investment.

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Marco Rosaire Rossi, a political science PhD currently serving as an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, agreed with the analysis.

Rossi said that Illinois, while progressive on many social issues compared to other Midwestern states, remains one of just eight states in the country with a flat income tax. In 2020, the state held a voter referendum on whether to change to a graduated tax system, but the proposition failed.

The Illinois income tax rate in 2022 is 4.95% for individual filers regardless of income and only 7% for corporations. This allows the rich to withhold a much greater share of their wealth from the state compared to lower-income Illinoisans, a phenomenon that Rossi said is repeated all across the country.

"The U.S. government at any level just doesn't tax the wealthy," Rossi said. "The states need a bigger pile of money to work with."

Rossi and Bortoto alike also blamed the child care crisis on the unbridled free market policies that have dominated U.S. economic and political consciousness since the late 1970s. The federal gutting of welfare policies and market controls that began under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, Rossi said, has hampered even supposedly progressive states' abilities to invest in social services. He contrasted this with mid-century federal policies, which supported a much stronger public sector.

"Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, states really grew their social safety nets, and they were able to do that because the federal government supported them," Rossi said. "That started to end in the late 70s, into the 80s and 90s."

The Child Care for All Coalition also posits a social dimension for the relative lack of state support. According to their study, some 95% of child care workers in the state are women of color. The paper claims that institutional devaluing of work stereotypically considered feminine, as well as institutional racism in the U.S., have contributed to the dearth of state support for the industry.

"Child care has long served as a key example of care work categorized as 'women’s work': unpaid labor performed in private homes, outside of the formal marketplace," the first paper states.

"Racism and sexism contribute to the historic undervaluing of child care workers, whose caregiving has long been considered a low, undignified type of work precisely because of being work carried out disproportionately by women of color," the second paper adds.

LaTonya Mitchell, a Black licensed childcare provider in Chicago for over 17 years and an SEIU member for a decade, said she had experienced a racially tinged lack of support throughout her career.

"A lot of people don't think race plays a part... It does," Mitchell said. "In job offers, resources, in how much money you'll get."

She also compared the relative abundance of resources and state assistance enjoyed by child care centers on Chicago's majority-white North Side to the poorer centers of her own neighborhood on Chicago's largely Black and Latino South Side.

"I find out my [resource assistance] information from... providers that are downstate or up north that are in predominantly caucasian neighborhoods. And that information never trickles down to the South Side. I find out about grants from those providers... not from child care referral agencies on the south. And that's because predominantly we're Black on the South Side of Chicago compared to up north," Mitchell said.

Personally, she said she also struggles with the day-to-day cost of living. Despite having an associate's degree in early childhood education, she said she only makes an average of $3.80 per child per hour.

"It's the same or less than wait staff and I don't even get the tips," Mitchell said.

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Her frustration was shared by Nathaly Valdivia, a Latina mother and parent leader with the Coalition who said who said her son didn't enjoy the advantages of good early child care that many wealthier white children do. This was especially the case since she had her son as a teenager, she said.

"Running to school late, coming home early, doing things I wouldn't have to do if child care was more accessible," she said. "I was hustling... I wanted to make sure that my son had the opportunities that kids in, say, the white community had. They're ten steps ahead of kids in our communities."

Her experience is corroborated by the studies' figures, which shows that a lack of affordable child care disproportionally affects Black and brown parents.

"As result of the current system, wealthier, whiter areas in our state and the country tend to have more adequate child care supply, while working class people of color tend to live in 'child care deserts' in which there is little to no supply of providers within reasonable distance of children’s homes," the second paper states.

The paper proposes a number of solutions to rectify these inequities, and the larger childcare crisis. As one could predict from a study conducted by a group called the Child Care for All Coalition, the ultimate solution it puts forward is universal state-funded public child care, akin to the decadeslong progressive call for universal health care.

As Rossi pointed out, the U.S. is uncommonly unsupportive of both proposals. Per a separate 2021 study by the University of California - Los Angeles' World Policy Analysis Center, only six other countries besides the U.S. do not provide paid maternity leave.

"The US is an outlier in the world for not having paid family leave," Rossi said.

Recognizing the difficulty of attaining this ultimate goal, the coalition's white papers put forward a number of more granular solutions, starting with increasing child care workers' pay. The second study starts by proposing a baseline annual pay of $52,000 for all Illinois child care workers, subsidized by the state.

It also suggests expanding CCAP availability to families making up to $100,000 per year, having the state hire 10,000 new child care workers to replace those who left since the pandemic, and establishing 25 new child care centers in "child care deserts" across the state.

The challenge to having all these steps enacted, Bortoto said, is political will and tax law. While he said that Pritzker's administration had been receptive to the coalition's suggestions, the governor himself stated in October that he had no plans to revisit the failed graduated tax proposal.

"Without a new source of revenue, it undercuts all this," Rossi said.

"Yeah, I mean that's always what the challenge is, is building political will," Bortoto said.

Both men also said they were unsure what would happen if Pritzker's Republican gubernatorial opponent Darren Bailey pulled off an upset win this Election Day. While most polls put Pritzker between 9 and 20 points ahead of Bailey, a surprise victory for the far-right state senator could put the coalition's goals further out of reach. Bailey has said on numerous occasions that if elected he would cut, not expand, state spending.

"I don't know what happens if Republicans win," Rossi said.

Despite this uncertainty, and despite the existing crises the industry faces, Mitchell said she had no plans to leave child care. She said she felt her job was a necessity - a calling she could not abandon in good conscience.

"I enjoy teaching our future generations... I'm doing it for the kids and for the families that I serve," Mitchell said.

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